Will Johnson and Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster are both prolific musicians steeped in the alt-country and singer-songwriter traditions. After the two met when Kinkel-Schuster’s band Water Liars toured as the openers for Johnson’s band Centro-matic on their farewell tour in 2014, it was only natural that a kinship would develop. From that Marie/Lepanto, the name taken from a road sign in Arkansas between the two towns of the same names, was born. It took a few years to come to fruition, but in January the duo released their first album of the new project, titled Tenkiller. Combining the strengths of both musicians both as songwriters and performers, it’s easily one of the best alt-country releases of the year. While their tour for the album has largely consisted of house shows, in DC the pair came to DC9 on Friday night.
Johnson and Kinkel-Schuster opened the show somberly with the record’s opening track, “Patient, Patient Man.” Playing through most of the album’s tracks, the duo traded off on lead vocal duties, but the real strength of their union showed in the perfect vocal harmonies when the two sang together. With only the two of them, the music was somewhat stripped down from the fuller arrangements on the album, with some songs (particularly the rocking “Inverness” and “High Desert”) changing significantly from their album arrangements, while others (“Famished Raven,” “Simple Scenes”) stayed truer to form. Even with just the two of them, they managed to hold the small but obviously dedicated audience to attention.
Of course a band with only one album has limited material, but the duo made up for that by spending the second half of the set alternating between songs from some of their earlier projects, newly arranged for the format of the performance. Johnson contributed “Just To Know What You’ve Been Dreaming” from his 2004 album Vultures Await, “Scorpion” from his 2012 album of the same title, and “Twenty Circles to the Ground” from his 2009 project with Jason Molina. Kinkel-Schuster brought three songs from his 2016 solo album Constant Stranger, “Whose Will Be Done,” “Headed South,” and “Half Broke.” The two then closed the night off with a return to the new songs, with the title track “Tenkiller.”
At the end of the night, those in attendance realized that they had witnessed something special, a meeting of the minds of two of the best singer-songwriters working in alt-country today. Tenkiller is out now on Big Legal Mess Records, and it’s well worth a listen. Hopefully it won’t be just a one-off.
Opening the set was Joshua Britten, the Philadelphia “ghost folk” singer-songwriter who records and performs as Psalmships, with a mesemerizing solo acoustic set. Britton released his most recent album, Obvious + Unafraid in 2016.